Content Warning

Greetings and Salutations.
Because my stories have bite, they can contain content that isn't suitable for work or children. Not a lot of truly graphic sex or violence, but there are some questionable or heated posts. F-bombs are not uncommon, so watch your footing.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Story: The Morrigan

Here's another story that just didn't make it for an anthology.  Since I wrote it for a specific book, I don't feel like shopping it around for others, in an attempt to get it sold.  I'll leave it here to be enjoyed.

    The weeping had finally stopped, though the air was still redolent of blood and death.  Marfoir cawed loudly, the raucous sound filling the great hall.  The corvid claimed one of the corpses for himself, slowly making his way toward the bulging eyes.  She ignored her raven, drawing the last of the advisor's life into herself.  Soul energy filled her, feeding her insatiable need for death.  She felt regal, powerful.  Everything about her intimidated the mortals of the court, and she enjoyed it.
    Crossing one sickly pale leg over the other, she let her eyes rove the crowd.  Elves cowered from her, clinging to each other.  Some wept, some were on the edge of fainting, and some glared back defiantly.  She crooked a finger, gesturing subtly at the dessicated corpses at her feet, letting their deaths serve as an abject lesson.  Challenging gazes turned away, and she narrowed her eyes, lifting her chin in triumph.
    "Bring him forth."  Her voice was like the grave, causing the guards to scurry.  It pleased her to see everyone scared of her.  All the training and pain she'd gone through had sculpted her into this awesome form, and it was only proper they cowered from her.
    There was a scuffle at the back of the hall as the guards led their prisoner forward.  "What are you doing on my throne?" Wyrryn growled, struggling against his manacles, his eyes flashing murder as he glared at her.    
     She was amused by the bulky warrior's antics, but kept it from her face.  It simply won't do for the terrible new queen to giggle like a little girl.  Her massive raven croaked, long and loud, expressing some of her derision.  One of the female courtiers cried out at the grating sound, starting other women to wailing again.
    Remaining quiet, she watched the younger elf as he stalked to her.  Not young, she reminded herself.  Hasn't been young since he snatched the throne.  He became an adult the moment he raised his blade to my father. 
    Veins stood out on Wyrryn's forehead as the guards forced him to his knees.  "Well, girl?  What is the meaning of this?"
    She laughed then, tossing her befeathered head back.  Marfoir joined her, his caws resounding in the wooden hall.  She continued laughing, memories bubbling up from the back of her head.
    Branwen lay still on the stream bank, watching the shadows moving in the depths of a pool.  Her stomach clenched with hunger, her hands trembling, aching in the cold mountain water.  The young elf woman drew a deep breath, forcing herself to remain calm, making her body become steady.
    A fish brushed her fingers, triggering reflexive actions.  Her hands twitched, snagging the animal, flinging it up and over her shoulder.  Sighing gratefully, Branwen rose from the rocky shore, collected her fish, and returned to her camp.
    The trembling came back with a vengeance as she sat by her low fire.  Her grip was numb as she brought out her knife, and she nicked her left hand as she started cleaning her catch.  Too long, she thought, focusing on her task to avoid hurting herself further.  There's just not enough game on this mountain.  No one could survive up here for long.
    Branwen's willpower broke then.  She made no attempt to cook the fish, eating as soon as she gutted it.  The mountain trout seemed like the best meal she'd ever had; even as she stuffed another piece of the meat into her mouth, she told herself that it was only starvation talking.
    An inquisitive quork interrupted her gorging, drawing Branwen's attention to the deadfall on the other side of her camp.  The largest raven she'd ever seen perched atop the mass of dead tree, head turned to one side, feathers partly raised.  Branwen raised another morsel to her lips, and the raven snapped its attention to the movement.
    "Are you hungry too, little cousin?"  Her voice was scratchy with disuse, and it hurt her throat.  The enormous black bird gave a small growling noise, its eyes darting to the pile of fish guts on the ground.  Branwen laughed, not remembering the last time she had felt anything resembling humor.  "I suppose you would be hungry too, all alone up here."
    Moving slowly to avoid frightening the bird, the young woman reached down.  The guts scattered as she flung them toward the deadfall, and the raven gave a small hop back, then launched itself to the ground.  Branwen grinned, eating her fish once more, finding herself glad to have a companion during dinner.
    She felt her stomach shift, and forced herself to slow down.  No use throwing up the first food I've found in a week.  Taking a small bite, Branwen concentrated on cutting one of the eyes from the fish.  I won't make it back off this forsaken mountain if I waste my energy stupidly.
    The raven spent its time digging through fish guts for the most delectable bits, flicking aside what it didn't want.  Branwen smiled as she watched it, taking joy in its antics.  Apparently I've been starved for companionship as well, she ruminated, slipping another bit of fish into her mouth.
    "Hey, little cousin," she called softly.  The bird looked, a string of liver hanging from its beak.  Once she had its attention, she tossed it the eyeball.  The raven cawed in obvious excitement, jumping toward the gelatinous morsel, a crest of feathers rising tall along its neck.  "You're welcome," Branwen said as the black bird claimed its prize.
    The young elf laughed as her delighted dinner companion took the eyeball up into the deadfall to feed.  "I always knew your kind wasn't all death and gloom."  Without taking its attention from its food, the corvid gave a purring sound.  "But I guess most people can't see the playfulness when you're feasting on the dead."
    Sighing softly, Branwen began cutting the other eye free.  "Most people also wouldn't be on this type of quest.  Nor would they be talking to a raven."  She paused to eat more fish.  "But it feels good to be talking again.  Even if you can't respond.  I suppose that makes you a better listener."
    The raven continued to make little noises, taking its time eating the eyeball.  Branwen had seen gorier feasts at her father's hall.  "You even eat cleaner than some of his warriors," she opined.  "Certainly didn't know my little cousins could be so delicate."
    The bird dropped the unwanted leftovers, looking at Branwen with bright eyes.  She held up the second eye, preparing to toss it.  "Ready?"  In response, the raven crouched, spreading its wings, bobbing its head in preparation.  She laughed again, tossing the eye in a high arc.  The raven cried once, leaping from its perch.  Branwen watched in amazement as the corvid caught its treat unerringly, then glided to roost on a rock beside her.
    "Well done!" she lauded, feeling her shoulders relax, laughter replacing tension.  Her new friend quorked around the eyeball, then settled down to eat.  "I've seen my other cousins playing in the wind, but I've never seen one as dexterous as you.  Makes me wonder if all ravens can be like this."
    The corvid rattled out a noise, content to eat close to the young woman.  She set aside the remains of her fish, feeling full despite her near starvation status.  Feeding sticks to the fire, Branwen contemplated sleep.  It's almost evening.  I can't search any farther today, and there are more fish in that stream.  I could spend a day building up my strength first, then keep searching for Sojobou.
    "Why am I even debating this?" she asked, reaching for her water skin.  The raven quorked softly.  "Believe me, little one, I need the rest.  I can look for the temple later.  Maybe you can show me where it is."  The young woman took another swig, her feathered companion cleaning its beak on the rock.  "You certainly know where to find the food.  If you could show me that secret, I'd find Sojobou on my own."
    Sighing resignedly, Branwen laid out her bedroll, feeling weary muscles absorbing nutrients.  "If you're still hungry, you can have the rest of my fish.  I'll catch some more in the morning."  Settling under her threadbare blanket, Branwen chattered at the raven until she fell asleep, relaxing for the first time in years.
    The excited crackle of the fire springing back to life woke Branwen.  She came to her feet, knife drawn before she was fully conscious.  Adrenalin heightened her senses as she scanned the camp.  Her raven companion was still perched on its rock, and gave several sleepy murmurs.  Keeping her guard up, knowing the bird would have raised the alarm if something were wrong, Branwen allowed her conscious mind to take control.
    Once she did, the young elf was able to see her visitor crouching on the log beside her bedroll.
    Keeping her knife at the ready, but making no threatening moves, she studied the man as he studied her.  He looked to be on the waning side of prime, with weather-beaten skin and a fine spread of wrinkles around his eyes.  He was dressed in monk's robes, but they did nothing to hide the lithe strength of his body, nor the scars that ran from his knuckles and up his forearms.  His long silver hair was in a braid over one shoulder, the end held in long fingers.
    As the moment drug out, Branwen realized he hadn't blinked once.  He's perching, she told herself as the observations continued.  He's perching just like a bird.  If I startled him, will he fly away?
    The fire was high behind her, warming a body she hadn't realized had gotten cold.  She shivered, adrenalin starting to drain as her startlement faded.  Although her visitor wasn't threatening her, she kept her guard up.
    "I apologize for waking you.  I only meant to keep you warm until morning."  He blinked slowly, drawing her attention to his eyes.
    Branwen's wariness was replaced by wonderment.  Her knife hand fell to her side, and she sat heavily on the ground.  Captivated by the liquid pools of his eyes, she finally felt the magical aura around him.  "Thank-" she started, but her voice died in her throat.  Branwen forced herself to be polite to what had to be a mountain spirit, knowing he had more at his disposal than she could see.  "Thank you.  I didn't know it would be so cold."  She shivered again as her body chilled further in reaction to her surprise.
    "No one does, because no one comes up this mountain.  Were you not warned this was a tengu mountain?"  He tipped his head to one side, just like a bird, and blinked his solid black eyes once.
    "That's why I'm here," she replied.  The cold began seeping insidiously through her clothes, only her back warm where the fire caressed her.  Keeping her eyes on the otherworldly visitor, Branwen reached for her blanket, wrapping it around herself.  "I seek Sojobou."
    His gaze became more intense, the firelight reflected on their liquid surface.  Branwen watched as he examined her again, his head slowly tipping to the other side.  "Why do you seek him?"
    "I was told he was a great warrior and an even greater sorcerer.  I'm looking for his temple so I may become his student."  Branwen held her head up, keeping the stranger's gaze.  She had no fear of unknown spirits; her land was rife with bizarre beings, most of them less friendly than the one in front of her.
    The raven yawned, giving its wings a brief shake as it settled further onto its rock.  Branwen glanced at the bird, then back at the visiting spirit.  They have the same eyes.  Can my little cousin there also shapeshift?
    "Why do you want him to train you?" the white-haired man asked, drawing her attention back to him.
    Branwen narrowed her eyes, suspicions growing as the conversation continued.  "Why do you care?"  Her politeness was starting to slip, her true personality coming forth.
    He leaned forward, dropping his braid as his fingers started to crook like talons.  Branwen stiffened when his aura wrapped around her, full of killing intent and danger.  Her hand clenched on her knife hilt, but otherwise she forced herself to remain still.
    "This is my mountain.  I will know why you are here."
    Her mouth went dry, her eyes wide as she stared at the tenguThe villagers said tengu were half-bird demons.  He doesn't look half-bird or demonic.  "I was told by the villagers that Sojobou trained the righteous seeking vengeance.  I need his skills."  Branwen waited patiently for the tengu to respond.
    Blinking slowly, the tengu turned his head, studying her, his aura retracting.  The raven quorked, standing up, and flew off into the darkness.  The fire crackled, the only noise in the clearing, the light dancing in the rising breeze.  Branwen shivered as the wind sent fingers beneath her blanket.
    "What makes you think Sojobou will accept you?"
    She was speechless.  "He has to," she managed, her thoughts reeling.  What if he doesn't accept me? Maybe he's not accepting neophytes.  Maybe he doesn't teach elves, or women, or anyone my age.  Branwen closed her eyes against the sudden sting of tears, hunger and exhaustion adding to her emotional breakdown.  Her heart raced, her limbs trembled, her throat clenched as sobs threatened to rise.
    The tengu wrapped his arms around Branwen, pulling her head against his shoulder.  The young woman fought back a sob, turbulent thoughts surfacing.  I have not come this far to be turned away. I can't let him tell me no.  Six years has brought me to the point of no return.  I have no idea where to go if Sojobou turns me away.
    Anger festered out of her heart again, as fresh as the day she'd run from her father's hall.  I cannot be turned away.  Sojobou needs to teach me so I can make Wyrryn pay, make him suffer.  Branwen clenched her knife so hard her knuckles ached, her forearm trembled.  She gritted her teeth, and tried to press away from the spirit man.
    "What did Wyrryn do to make you so hateful?"  The tengu stroked her hair, still holding her as she fumed.
    Branwen laughed sharply, caught off-guard by his sudden question.  "Should I be surprised that you can read my intent?"
    He pushed her to arm's length, his face serene.  "It is my duty to know the intent of everyone on my mountain."
    "So what do I do now?"  Branwen shivered, exhaustion stealing over her.
    "You go back to sleep, little visitor, and I take you to Sojobou's temple in the morning."  Branwen sagged in relief, eliciting a smile from the mountain guardian.  He leaned forward, kissing her forehead, and the young woman fell into darkness.
    Branwen woke slowly the next morning, feeling well-rested.  The fire was low, mostly a pile of embers, but its heat felt good in the brisk air.  She was beneath a thick blanket that smelled like dust and spices, immediately reminding her of ravens.  The tengu must have left it for me.
    A friendly quork drew her attention toward the deadfall.  The raven was watching her, feathers gleaming blue-black in the early light, perched on a leather sack.  "Good morning, little cousin," Branwen said as she sat up.  The raven bobbed its head, then rubbed its beak on the sack.
    "Is that for me?" the young elf asked, getting up to stride across the camp.  The raven hopped aside, murmuring and watching her.  Branwen sat heavily, her body still weak, though she felt no other signs of exhaustion.  Once she opened the bag, her stomach reminded her how empty it had been lately.  She smiled at the sight of dried meat and hard cheese, then dug in with relish.
    "Remind me to thank my benefactor," Branwen said around a mouthful of jerky.  The corvid squeaked a reply, its head tipped to one side, intently watching her eat.  She pulled a wad of meat out of her mouth, sharing her bounty with her feathered companion.  The raven snatched it with a high pitched sound, gobbling it greedily.
    "Marfoir says you are very kind to him," the tengu said in Branwen's ear, appearing behind the young woman without a sound.  She shivered, smelling his magical aura this morning, the spirit's power nearly overwhelming.  "He is curious about you and your respect for his kind."
    She didn't look at the tengu, only at the raven sitting patiently beside her.  "Well, Marfoir, my tribe believes we're indebted to ravens.  When our people first came from the Twilight Lands, it was a murder of ravens that showed us to our new home, showed us what was good to eat, and warned us of our enemies.  To repay them, we have given them roosts for eternity, and claim them as our kin."  To end her speech, Branwen gave the bird another wad of softened meat.  Marfoir chirped, eating more slowly this time.
    The tengu shifted behind her, remaining quiet.  The young elf looked over her shoulder, meeting his serene gaze.  "Did you want to leave already?"
    "I can wait for you to break your fast.  The temple is going no where."  He gazed around the clearing, his hair loose and stirring in the breeze.  Branwen took him at his word, and continued to eat, sharing everything with the raven.  Marfoir edged closer to her with every bite, eventually perching on her knee and helping himself to the food.  She finished her breakfast in quiet companionship, years of angst and stress given temporary relief.
    The tengu rose as Branwen tidied up the camp.  He remained quiet while she worked, waiting patiently with his hands clasped behind his back.  Branwen had very few belongings left to her, and as she settled her belt on narrow hips, she felt shabby next to the mountain guardian.  Here's hoping Sojobou doesn't judge supplicants on their appearance.  Let him see the strength of my heart, and understand my need.  Pushing her thoughts aside, Branwen followed the tengu up the mountain.
    Marfoir flew off, cawing farewell, swiftly disappearing into the clear blue sky.  Branwen hiked quietly behind the tengu, listening to the forest around them.  It was eerily free of animal sound, and the gentle soughing of the breeze soon died down.  The elf had never been in a place so seemingly devoid of life.  Even the desert in the north had life.  Has my guide driven everything off?
    "Sojobou's anger has driven everything but Marfoir off."  Branwen smiled at the tengu, trying to frame her next question.  He continued speaking before she finished.  "What did the villagers tell you of this place?"
    "Not enough," she said, drawing abreast of the tengu.  "I wasn't spending a lot of time on research."  Branwen smiled.  "I'm thinking I really should have."
    They walked in silence, the spirit guiding her to a clearing.  The sun warmed her skin, relaxing her, and the elf sighed as she continued speaking.  "They speak of Sojobou as both a god and a demon.  They talked like he'd been here forever, that he's a blight.  Yet some of them claimed him to be a great defender, or something else glorious."
    "And that inspired you to seek him?"
    "Yes, it did.  Days and days away from this mountain, people have heard legends of him.  Even if they can't agree if he's a demon or not, they all agree he's the greatest warrior in the region.  And the greatest sorcerer.
    "They told me tales of a young man that survived the slaughter of the rest of his family, and Sojobou schooled him in sword play, allowing the young man to avenge them."  She sighed softly.  "That's what intrigues me so much.  I need someone to teach me."
    "Your family was also slaughtered?"  The tengu stopped by a flat boulder, hopping up to perch on the edge.  Branwen leaned against it, looking out across the valley below.  "Surely it was something heinous to cause you to come all this way just on the hope of finding a teacher."
    The elf hugged herself, no longer seeing the wooded vista.  Instead, she saw the verdant forests of her youth, smoke rising from the tree villages, storms gathering on the jagged peaks overlooking the valley.  She saw the paths she'd ridden while hunting, and the pools where she'd learned to swim.
    Then she saw her mother's lifeless eyes staring out of the garden pond.  She saw her father gutted, then ripped to pieces by the hunting hounds.  Her younger siblings skewered by spears, the servants thrown from the catwalks, the warriors slain by their own swords.
    Once more she saw her cousin raping her on her father's throne.  "Yes," she whispered.  "Very heinous."
    "You would use new power to take back a chair?"  The tengu's voice was low, barely louder than the breeze.  Somewhere in the distance, Marfoir cawed, reminding them he was still there.
    "I could care less about the throne," she eventually replied.  "I was the heir, was raised to rule, but it means nothing to me.  Laying my family's spirits to rest does.  Seeing Wyrryn's face when I tear the life from him, and slaying all those who betrayed us...that matters to me."
    "You would let vengeance consume your soul?"
    She smiled mirthlessly, feeling the hardness that had taken over her since she first escaped Wyrryn's men.  "I died that night.  I'm a ghost, and have been for these past years.  There is no forgiving for me, no kindness in my heart.  I will become Death's handmaiden if necessary." 
    Branwen turned to face the spirit, her eyes narrowed.  "I would welcome it, actually.  I would gladly become an instrument of death and vengeance, and would punish more than my worthless cousin."
    The tengu was staring at her, head tipped to one side, eyes narrowed to slits.  His aura was clouding the clearing, intense, hungry.  Branwen kept the bird-man's gaze, almost challenging him with her directness.  Now that he's heard my story, will he take me to Sojobou?  Or will he want more from me?
    They continued staring at each other, the wind dying as the sun rose higher.  Branwen felt a sense of serenity pass over her, despite the anger lodged in her heart.  She would wait as long as it took to meet Sojobou, to plead her case to him.
    Marfoir dove to a stop amidst them, landing on the boulder in a flurry of feathers.  Branwen stared at him, laughing, the raven's antics bringing a sense of lightness to the she-elf.  She held out a hand, and Marfoir hopped over to rub his beak along her fingers.  Her smile deepened, and she was glad to have met the corvid.
    "I will train you," the tengu said softly.
    Branwen looked up suddenly, frowning.  "What do you..."  Her voice trailed off as every clue and suspicion finally clicked.  "You're Sojobou.  You're a great sorcerer because you're a spirit, or demon, or whatever."  She narrowed her eyes.  "But why take on mortal disciples?"
    Sojobou tipped his head nearly sideways, scooting closer to her.  "I like mortals.  You're interesting.  You're very interesting when I give you my powers to use."  He smiled, his eyes glittering.
    "What happens?" she asked with a hushed voice.
    He looked out across the forest, smiling fondly.  "That depends on the heart of my student.  Some have died, some have flourished.  It's what mortals do best.  You," he said with a sidelong glance, "intrigue me.  I'm not sure what you'll do given my powers.  You're so nice and loving to Marfoir, but there is so much hate inside you.  I've never given my powers to one with such juxtopisition in their heart."
    Branwen chewed her lower lip, contemplating Sojobou's words.  She would be changed completely if she accepted his training.  But I'm already changed.  Nothing has been the same since Wyrryn's attack.
    This is the way it must be.  This is what I've been looking for.  Even if I die now, I can say I tried.
    At least I tried.
    Marfoir jumped to her shoulder, feathers puffed out, croaking long and loud.  Branwen felt the raven's acceptance, and nodded once at the tengu.  "Let's find out what happens."  Sojobou smiled, reaching for the elf.  After six years, vengeance would be hers.
    Wyrryn struggled to rise, his guards barely keeping him on his knees.  "Speak, girl," the elven despot snarled, still pulling against his manacles.
    Her laugh cut off suddenly, Marfoir flapping his wings in a threatening gesture.  "Do you honestly think you still rule here?"  The remaining warriors shifted at the sound of her voice, drawing closer together.  They held back, wanting to be on the winning side.  They were used to supporting Wyrryn after a decade and a half, but she had already displayed her fearsome powers.  The swiftness with which she'd slain their compatriots had shaken them to their core.
    Wyrryn spat, the glob of phlegm landing on her leather slippered foot.  "You steal my throne, kill my men, and dare to put me in chains.  It's not I who is delusional." 
    "Once, your words would have enraged me," she said quietly as she rose.  Her leather dress rustled as she moved, the skirt slit up each side to reveal long expanses of her undead pallor.  Her feather headdress and collar stirred as she came to a stop before her cousin, and she saw the first flicker of fear in Wyrryn's eyes.  "Now, they only make me laugh.  All your bluster, all your 'power'...all of it is meaningless.  In the end, you will still die, and your name will be forgotten."  Marfoir laughed in corvid fashion, and Wyrryn's eyes went wide, his anger draining.
    She reached for his face, her talon-esque fingers crooking against his skin.  Power grew in her palm, hungry for Wyrryn's soul, and sweat beaded on his forehead.  "What are you?"
    The former elf grinned, tasting the dying man's fear.  "I am the Morrigan."